Ever wish for a personal assistant who could instantly answer your questions about just about anything? Enter Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram Alpha is a computational knowledge engine that uses a vast storehouse of expert knowledge to answer queries in a wide range of disciplines. What’s a computational knowledge engine? Here’s Wolfram’s explanation.

You can get a tour of Wolfram Alpha basics here.

My first thought when considering how Wolfram Alpha can be useful in school was that it serves as yet another reminder that homework with easily calculated or “searched” answers isn’t much good anymore. All it takes to answer it is a click of a button. On the other hand, for assignments that entail devising and exploring questions, Wolfram Alpha can be a valuable resource, particularly in questions with a mathematical bent.

If you are teaching problem finding, you could ask students to devise three questions on a general topic of interest and see what information Wolfram Alpha produces. Then, see what new questions this raises. It is often in combining information or questions that the most interesting issues arise. For example, I first queried “fastest animal” and was informed that a peregrine falcon can go 200 mph in a dive. The query “fastest land animal” informed me that a cheetah can run 75 mph. What about the ocean? A sailfish can swims 68.3 mph. How does that compare to the fastest human? In general, are land, air, or sea creatures faster? How would I figure that out?

Or send students off to Wolfram Alpha searching for examples of mathematical equations, principles, or models you are studying. Or assign them to create problems using data from its results. For example, what equation would be used to calculate the relationship of the fasted animal to the fastest human? If you wanted to mathematically justify the who is the best major league baseball player this year, how would you do that? One of its great assets is Wolfram Alpha’s ability to demonstrate mathematics’ relevance to various disciplines.

Of course not all questions produce the information you anticipate. When I asked Wolfram Alpha “What temperature I should cook a turkey?” I was thinking about oven temperature, but the response clarified the minimum temperature to which turkey should be cooked. It also informed me that the response (165 degrees F) was 96 degrees F below the hottest temperature of a Concorde nose tip! It was unable to answer a question about materials used to make musical instruments, but offered information on instruments’ range, pitch, and frequencies instead. Want data about food? Browse here. Culture and media? Or just explore the list of content options.

As a site for building curiosity, especially mathematical curiosity, Wolfram Alpha is a treasure trove. Explore and enjoy. I’d love to hear about the ways you use it!